If you only know Ralph Fiennes as a Nazi or wizard, book yourself a theatre ticket asap. Far from the buttoned-down brooders of his screen holding pattern, on stage he really lets rip. The man has such a pair of lungs on him he could launch a sideline in training freedivers should the roles ever dry up. So Joe’s big bro is a safe bet for one of Shakespeare’s meatier, if less well-known roles.
Trepidation could be forgiven, though, this being (A) Fiennes’ first film as director, and (B) an adaptation of a play that predates movies by some 300 years and has never been a favourite of Bard aficionados.
Fiennes and The Hurt Locker DoP Barry Ackroyd have clearly been mainlining Children Of Men, updating the play to “a place calling itself Rome” that resembles ’90s Serbia.
We’re presented a war-crushed state that reaches out to conquering hero Coriolanus to lead them – and in an early, brutally staged knife fight, he proves his credentials. This fiery general’s contempt for his people doesn’t go down well, though, and he’s soon deposed – promptly joining the rebels he’s been quashing. A dick move? Sure. He’s no dreamboat Romeo or witty Hamlet.
What he is, though, is a terrific character, and Fiennes tears into him with gusto. Old pros Brian Cox and (in particular) Vanessa Redgrave also bring a lifetime of skill to bear as a wily politician and Coriolanus’ fiercely patriotic mother, but some of the more naturalistic verse-reading lower down the bill sits awkwardly with their elevated styles.
Still, because the play’s so rarely taught or performed, Coriolanus feels like discovering a whole new Shakespeare work. And what’s not to love about that?
More than just a nutritious slice of Shakespeare, Fiennes’ directing debut makes you crave further helpings. Watch Redgrave during awards season.